THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Most movies involving cancer end with the ill person dying. Other People opens with the death. It's a smart move, because that choice allows the film to move on and be about something else. This story is about much more than sickness and death, though. It's about finding a way to cope when you get run over by life's problems. Writer/director Chris Kelly (head writer for Saturday Night Live) has crafted a funny, honest, and moving slice-of-life film that has an undeniable ring of truth.
Jesse Plemons plays David, a comedy writer whose career isn't taking off like he thought it would. He's just broken up with his boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods), and his father Norman (Bradley Whitford) has trouble accepting that he's gay. Worst of all, his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), has terminal cancer. David doesn't know how to process any of this, much less deal with it, so he walks around in a dazed funk. Other People follows him as he flounders, sinks, and -- through both positive and negative interactions with family and friends -- ultimately finds a way to rise up and start figuring stuff out.
Any movie dealing with topics like these can easily become depressing. Other People goes a different route, choosing to be funny and identifiable. There are huge laughs in the film, because Kelly refuses to feel sorry for his characters. Instead, he views them in a very clear-eyed manner, often using humor to emphasize both their strengths and their weaknesses. Is David responsible for some of his problems? Doubtlessly, and sometimes comically. But he's also a person who's in emotional turmoil and therefore deserving of empathy. Joanne, on the other hand, finds empowerment in facing her illness with flamboyant energy. This kind of multi-layered character exploration is one of the movie's best traits.
Kelly devises some funny angles to look at the feelings of his fictional family. For example, a running gag has David repeatedly irritated over the faux uplift of Train's “Drops of Jupiter,” which he keeps hearing on the radio. It expresses an optimism he can't find within himself, thereby making it annoying. (Love it or hate it, you will never hear the song the same way again.) The aforementioned opening scene, meanwhile, shows the family grieving on the bed mere moments after Joanne has passed. Their mourning is interrupted by a bizarre phone call that leaves everyone dumbfounded. This tragicomic touch tempers the downbeat quality of the subject matter without rendering it meaningless. Other People hits just the right note of using humor to bring out the depth of its themes.
While it's frequently funny, the film certainly isn't without substance. This is a potent study of a person in anguish. David is repressed. He can't – or won't – make sense of the things in his life that aren't going the way he wants. Then he's faced with his mother's sickness, which is the one thing he can't deny or excuse away. Avoidance gets him nowhere, so he has to slowly come to terms with the fact that he's got to develop coping skills. He fumbles around, trying to find something that will work for him. When push finally comes to shove, he starts to put the pieces together.
Jesse Plemons is outstanding as David. It would be so easy for the character to be a whiny, self-absorbed bore, but the actor never allows that to happen. He finds David's sympathetic core, so that we actively root for him to sort his life out. It's a performance full of warmth and vibrancy. Molly Shannon is also superb, taking on a more dramatic role than we've ever seen her in. Because she never feels pity for Joanne, neither do we. The actress conveys how her character wants to go out with dignity, so she wisecracks and smiles her way to the very end. At the same time, Shannon shows the underlying fear of what it means to be staring at the final months of life. One of the movie's most affecting scenes finds Joanne meeting with her colleagues at the elementary school where she can no longer work. The pain registers on her face as she tries to be encouraging to the woman who will take her place in the classroom.
The movie's title refers to a moment in which David's friend points out that he is the “other people” we often say tragic things happen to. That's a bitter pill for him to swallow. Only when he accepts the statement's truth does he stop becoming one of them. Chris Kelly reportedly based Other People on his own life, and wrote it as an act of therapy. That's exactly what makes it so effective. There's real authenticity here. This is a special movie that follows one man through the darkest period of his life, and leaves him – and us – genuinely uplifted.
( 1/2 out of four)
Other People is unrated, but contains adult language, sexual content, and mature themes. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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